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“I’m Still in Art-Monster Mode”: A Conversation with Katie Fricas

Katie Fricas had a big year. Her work was featured in The New York Times, PEN America, and The New Yorker, amongst other various and esteemed places. Fricas processes art and life in a peculiar way that would feel equally at home on the hippest blogs or in older underground publications like Twisted Sisters. I find true humanity and humor in what she calls her “messy” line, so we set up a conversation and discussed growing up in a military family, performing in front of crowds, and pigeons. World War I pigeons to be exact.

How did that meeting go last week? We originally scheduled the interview for an earlier date, but we had to reschedule because you had a tenant meeting.

It was weird. I live in this old building in a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying. We have rent-stabilized apartments and I’m a relatively newish tenant there compared to people who have been there for thirty years. It’s totally neglected. I have water bubbles and the window fell in yesterday. It’s really a disaster of a building. Everybody got this letter that said they are going to raise our rent because they are going to try to do improvements on the building. Everyone was like, “What the!?” They don’t even do regular maintenance on the building so it's obviously them just trying to push people out. There’s suddenly a wine store in this neighborhood, and a record shop, and coffee shop. It was hard, you know? It was a bunch of people, old and new, yelling over each other. I think some things were accomplished though. We agreed that we’d all send a letter in together, in one envelope. That came from the meeting. [Laughs.] It’s stressful and it went on forever.

Does that sort of stress affect your art-making at all?

I’m a stress-ball of a human. I’m stressed over every category of life. It’s probably a personal problem, you know? I couldn’t see if this particular thing affected me because I always walk around with my teeth gritted, to be perfectly honest. [Laughs.] I don’t know. It’s just one of those things. They are always fucking with you in New York City. They are always messing with people. It’s always been a constant ever since I’ve lived here. It was actually a positive thing that people wanted to meet and get together. It seems, generally, that there are a bunch of new people moving in and they’re like hipster types. They seem sort of apathetic, so that’s not good either. I was glad that some people wanted to discuss it.

How long have you lived in New York?

I’ve lived here for thirteen years. It will be fourteen in May.

Where are you originally from?

My dad was in the Army, so I moved around a lot. My family stopped moving in Virginia. I went to middle school and high school in Virginia. I went to college in New Jersey, then came to New York. But before that, I lived in a bunch of different places.

Wherever your dad was stationed?

Yeah, yeah. I was actually born in Virginia, but then we moved to Louisiana, and Texas, and Germany, and Massachusetts, then back to Virginia.

What did your dad do in the Army?

He was a career soldier. He was in Vietnam. He was already enrolled in the Army when Vietnam happened, so he wasn’t drafted or anything. Then he stayed in the military and he eventually moved up to military intelligence. He just kept secrets for a living. [Laughter.]

How was that growing up? Like not being able to know what your dad did.

Ummm…

I mean, were you aware of that at all?

It was weird. I don’t know how that was. I’m dealing with that right now. I just did this storytelling gig last night. Do you know “storytelling” is this whole genre of performance?

No, what is it? How is that different from a book reading or something?

You’re supposed to come, but not read anything. You have to tell a story as if you’re talking to your friends. I’d seen these events advertised around, but I never took part in one. It’s sort of like an open-mic, but more structured. They pick who’s there and talks. This one had a theme of “permission.” I wrote this piece about having permission to be an artist and yada yada yada. But it did go into this… My dad keeps coming up. It’s hard for me talk about because I have a lot of feelings about it. One thing that I’ve just started to think about is, if you’re in a military family, you are sort of in service of the family. The family is the unit. We moved every year. We had each other. Your friends can move away at any time or you move to a new school and a new house and don’t know anybody. I don’t know if every military family acted like this, but my family was really insular. They did encourage me to draw and be creative, but it was always like I had to make sure that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing first. I was really good in school. I was scared of breaking every rule.

Sure. Did it feel like you had a family reputation to uphold?

Yeah. At the end, my dad was a colonel. I don’t know though. There are things unrelated to the military that I think are just specific to my family too, that I think caused the way my dad acted. I don’t want to blame it all on the military. I didn’t know that my life was weird unless we moved somewhere and we weren’t living on base. If we moved somewhere and the military gave you a stipend and you can rent a house. When we moved to Massachusetts, we moved to this town called Waltham. It was like a townie type of town. My mom is from a mill town from middle-east Massachusetts and it was good because we were finally going to be around my mom’s family, but they were not used to people being from another place there. You had to know the secret handshakes. I was always shy and beating myself up. I remember being so tortured and I was just a little kid. I didn’t know who to sit next to on the bus and no one would talk to me. It was awful. That’s what I remember most affecting me. Is this too much information?

[Laughs.] You’re all good.

Just stop me when you actually want to talk about comics.

This is comics. Everything is comics.

OK, you’re right! When we moved to Virginia, those bitches were mean. That also coincided with me turning 11. I went to fifth grade, sixth grade, and high school in Virginia.

Are those some of the stories that appear in Blabbermouth?

[Laughs.] Nice segue! Yes, those are in Blabbermouth.

I was going to bring up those comics because they seem especially like a way to excise humiliating memories.

I’m never going to do something like those comics again. I was actually reading the journals of Paul Klee and his journals are really good. They are all these short paragraph snippets that are like arbitrary memories. Have you ever read Andy Warhol’s journals?

No, I haven’t.

His journals are like what he ate and who he hung out with. They are more like lists. Paul Klee’s journals would be like him looking into his brain for memories and pulling out anything and writing it up in three sentences. At the end of the paragraph, he would put how old he was. It was like, “Went to the market with Mama. Seven years old.”

OK.

I was reading those and having some depression issues. I was trying to pull myself out, so I was just like, “Let me just do this exercise where I just think of everything I can and put an age on it.” I was going to write it in short snippets too. That’s what turned into Blabbermouth. I noticed as I was doing it that a lot of the memories were kind of sexual. Then I was starting to think of things that were related. Then the memories stopped being like random grab-bagging.

Connections were being made.

Yeah. They all connected into this TMI comic. It was like an exorcism in a way. I wanted to confess, move on, then start hitting the pavement. I’ve been making comics forever, but I’ve only been sort of an “art monster” about it for the past four years. That’s when I really started being thirsty for blood.

You can tell. I was reading some of your comics from around 2008 and 2009 and your line is much tighter and you use a lot of spot blacks, but it’s not nearly as poignant. Your art is much looser and seems more spontaneous, but for me, it’s way more exciting to read. Can you pinpoint a time when you opened up your style and became that art monster?

Things changed when I started using bottled ink and watercolors. Those comics from 2007 through 2011 or so, are all micron pens, pencils, and brush pens. I was feeling frustrated. I’ve had a layman’s interest in comics since college and I was drawing and making little pieces, but… I went through this break-up and it was really upsetting. I got a day job so I could support my art-making, but I felt like I had dropped that agenda. When the break-up happened, I started paying attention to myself again. I was like, “I really need to do this right now, or I’ll never be an artist.” I would have just kept working my day job and that would have just been me. I decided to take a class. I just signed up… Do you know Brendan Leach?

He did that cool comic Iron Bound.

Yeah. He was having a release party at Bergen Street Comics — which is now gone and that’s so upsetting — and I went. I met Josh Bayer there. Do you know him?

I do.

I started talking to Josh and I learned that he taught at the 92nd Street Y. That was all around this time where everything was churning in my head. So, I decided to take a class from him and that’s when I started using ink. Everything picked up from there and I was just cruising.

Was there a conscience decision to loosen up your style or did that just happen naturally?

I’ve always been a mess. I don’t really know how to draw. The way that my stuff looks is the only way that it can look. I don’t know how to do it otherwise.

But the look of your art has changed a lot. At least in the last ten years.

I think, honestly, that it was about speed. I started realizing that I didn’t have time to do all the comics I wanted to do with the day job. I wanted the comics to pull me out. I had to do them after work and I would do them on the bus. It started working for me that my pages were looking messy, you know? I think it was the combination of the material I started focusing on and the time crunch. I just needed to learn — and I learned this from meeting up with other artists — that I just needed to put my pen down on the paper and start drawing.

What do you use to color your comics now?

It’s watercolor and marker. I put down a pencil drawing, then I do the watercoloring, then I use a marker, then the black lines. That’s my usual sequence.

You add color over your pencils and then go back and ink it after the colors have dried?

I add color over my pencils, then I add color again. It goes: blank paper, pencil, watercolor, marker, black outlines, then I go in again with more watercolor and ink. That’s what makes it look fucked up. [Laughter.] That’s what gives it that extra push. I keep coloring until it’s bright enough for me.

If you’re adding layers of colors like you do, then how do you know when something is finished?

I know when it’s done when I put it away and go to bed, but all I’m thinking about is how I want to get up again and look at it. [Laughs.] I just feel good about it. And that happens every time. I just know. I put it down and I’m like, “That’s good.” I just want to keep looking at it.

You’ve mentioned a few times that you like to keep your work messy.

Yeah.

How openly do you embrace quote-unquote mistakes when you’re working?

I try to keep everything on the page. Sometimes I’ll knock over an ink bottle onto the page and I can’t leave that, but if I drip on the page, or anything like that, I don’t care. I’m more picky about the writing and the rhythm. I won’t rest until that's perfect.

How much prep work do you do in terms of writing?

I spend a lot of time thinking, researching, and working things out. When I was little, I did like to draw, but I really wanted to be a writer. I like writing and took creative writing courses and stuff. I’m actually sort of shocked that comics are what I’m doing. I labor over the writing. It helps to work in a library too, because I basically have all my research materials at my fingertips all day every day. I do steal a lot of time. [Laughs.]

If it’s a nonfiction piece like my art reviews, I try to research a lot. There are other artists involved and I want to make sure I know my shit, you know? I like attending art shows and drawing what I see, but those are actually my least favorite kinds of things to do. They are really hard because I just worry about who’s involved. I don’t want to be a critic and that’s not what I set out to do. It just became that. I probably won’t do many of those anymore.

That’s too bad because those review pieces on Hyperallergic are what really brought me to your work in the first place.

Scratch that then. [Laughter.] Never mind!

Where did the idea come from to do art opening critiques and comics about performance art?

I went to them. I keep having these roundabout answers, but in the beginning stages of my art-monster phase, I was like, “OK, I’ve got to pitch ideas and get my stuff published!” I started thinking of articles that would make good comics. Other people do reporting, like Sarah Glidden and Molly Crabapple. But those are serious reporters. I’m a big fan of essays and despite myself, I really love Joan Didion. I wanted to make essays as comics. So, honestly, the first one I did for Hyperallergic was Duke Riley’s pigeon show. That one was just because of my pigeon connection, so…

Wait, you have a pigeon connection? [Laughter.]

Prior to all of the essay writing, I was really hooked on this true story about a pigeon that saved a battalion of two hundred American soldiers in World War I. The bird’s name was Cher Ami. I wanted to do a comic about this war pigeon. It was around 2012 and I was like, “OK. The centennial of the beginning of World War I is 2014. You’ve got two years.” I did so much research on World War I. I had a residency at the New York Public Library. I was getting all sorts of materials and went to the battle field in France. I’m scared to tell you about this because I don’t want anyone to know. I went real deep on this World War I pigeon, but I think I did too much research and was never able to complete it. It became a thorn in my side. It’s still all in a box under my bed — all my pigeon research.

How far did you get?

[Sighs.] I didn’t get anywhere. I was flying in circles. I learned a lot about pigeons and World War I, but… I knew where the buttons went on the soldiers’ uniforms. I knew what kind of cigarettes they smoked. But I just couldn’t do it. It was very frustrating and went on and on and on. I was telling everyone about it and it became embarrassing after a while. “Where’s that pigeon comic?” I became obsessed with pigeons.

And that’s what brought you to the art show.

I heard about it because this artist I really admire, Tina Trachtenburg, was protesting it. She believed they were using the animals in a cruel way. I thought it would be interesting to attend and since I already knew how to draw pigeons with my eyes closed. [Laughter.] It was on the Brooklyn Navy Yard and I wanted to get on that too. You only ever go there if your car gets towed in New York City and it’s a huge acre piece of land. They opened it up for this show. I pitched it to Hyperallergic and there’s a really good editor there named Jillian Steinhauer. She went in on my comics and really edited. In one piece, I had mentioned that there were sequins on a dress and she noticed that in the drawing, I didn’t include sequins.

And you’d never really been edited before?

Yeah. I remember thinking that she was a genius. Most of the editors I’ve worked with at sites aren’t used to art and only really comment on the writing. She was encouraging me to do more of them. That was a really long story.

You’re able to capture the excitement and the certain absurdity about art that most written reviews can’t.

I wanted each art review to have moving parts and be interesting to read as comics. The only one that isn’t like that is the one I did on the Jayne County show because it was just a gallery show with pictures tacked to the wall. That was hard. I wanted to write about her, but I don’t really want to do those kinds of reviews. It’s easier to make comics about immersive installations. Otherwise, you don’t really need to see drawings of it.

Did that lead you to some of your big gigs this year? You were in The New York Times, and PEN America and The New Yorker. Did your focus change this year or did things fall into place?

I’m nervous and don’t know if I should be saying all of these things. I was visiting my sister in Seattle and bought these sweet vintage roller skates. They’re like clogs with wheels. I put them on Instagram and my girlfriend at the time who was doing cartoons for The New Yorker reblogged them. The New Yorker editor there liked those roller skates, I guess! She emailed me the next day. I feel like the roller skates are what did it. [Laughter.]

Was that Emma Allen?

Yes, she emailed me. She asked if I wanted to contribute and I asked my girlfriend at the time if it was a joke. Like, “Is that her real email address?” And it was! She asked me to send some ideas and come in to talk and I definitely wanted to do that. I went in to meet with her and we met at this coffee shop on the 67th floor of a huge building. I’m afraid of heights! Have you ever been 67 floors up?

[Laughs.] I don’t know.

I was dying. But we had a really nice meeting and I submitted to the “Daily Shouts.” I haven’t been able to crack the gags or the print magazine yet, but I need to submit again. That was like an act of God.

It seems like a good fit. You’re one of those people that might be classified as an old-school humorist, I would say.

[Laughs.] That's nice. I should write that down.

Circling back to your trip to Seattle over the summer, I believe you visited with Roberta Gregory.

I did. I spent a day with her.

How was that?

She invited me over to her house and showed me around. She took me up to her studio in her attic. It was cool! She showed me a bunch of her work. She opened up this dresser and just started pulling out Naughty Bits original pages. The tit-swinging was all there! [Laughter.] It was crazy. She’s so soft-spoken, but her work is the opposite. I was shocked by that. I’m still working on making my interview with her into a comic.

Did you grow up reading her comics?

She’s an influence on me, but I didn’t grow up on comics. I read a lot of books as a kid, but I only really read Archie comics when I was little. I had some Ed Emberley drawing books and stuff like that. I got into comics in college through Diane DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan and Roberta Gregory and Ariel Schrag. I liked ‘dyke-y,’ queer, confessional, angry feminist comics. That’s how I got into comics. Jennifer Camper put me in touch with Roberta. I was so excited to meet her. She’s legendary, in my opinion.

I agree!

I haven’t finished my piece on Roberta yet because I’m trying to reread everything and there’s just so much. It wasn’t just Naughty Bits. There was Artistic Licentiousness and Winging It. All of Roberta’s comics are one big magnum opus.

Other than review and comment on these interviews or live events you attend, you do a lot of performing yourself too.

That’s relatively new for me. I’m a shy performer, but I’m aware that every time I do it, I don’t get hit with tomatoes. [Laughter.]

You don’t come off as a shy person.

It sounds like bullshit, but I know how to act. I’m groomed, you know? I have the military and I’ve been working in the Upper East Side for ten years. I am a loudmouth with my friends, but I get nervous in crowds. I don’t really like being the center of attention. Some people tell me, “You should be a stand-up comedian,” but as soon as they see me in front of crowd I’m sure those feelings fade away for them.

You say you don't like being the center of attention, but the few times we’ve met you’re always wearing neon and glitter and big fanny packs.

Yes. I feel you. [Laughs.] That’s because I dress to ward off depression. The bright colors make me feel better. If I’m wearing the wrong outfit or all black or something boring, I get even sadder. I never do that to attract an audience. I’m just trying to entertain myself. [Laughter.]

You have that new zine Fashionique. Is that an interest of yours?

I love fashion. I’m really interested in it. I wish I could make my clothes. My mom is really put together and always has the bags and shoes. I get it from my mother, I think. She's a stylish lady. I think fashion is art. Did you want to talk more about performing?

I’ve been to a lot of comic readings and most of the time it’s someone reading their page off the screen.

Yeah. [Laughter.]


They just read it out loud. I assume your performances are a little different.

I just want to give whoever is having me there whatever they want. Some of these things are set up for slide shows and I’ll do that, but what I prefer to do is “lazy animation.” I've been doing these shows with a theater company called Theater of the Apes, which is run by Ayun Halliday.

She runs the theater and does this thing called “Necromancers of the Public Domain.” They take books in the public domain and then hire artists to perform a piece in whatever medium they choose to riff on the book. For those, I started doing comics but not finishing them. I’ll draw a picture and stand on stage and read the comics, but there’s no text on the screen. I’ll animate using slide transitions and that way it’s kind of like a dance, you know? Using the theater’s tech crew, I can include sound effects and time up certain cues. I don’t know what that is, but it’s cool. They take less time than comics on paper because I don’t have to do any lettering.

What’s 2019 look like for you?

I'm still in art-monster mode! I'm going on tour with Sister Spit, which is this institution that was born in the ’90s out of the slam poetry scene. It’s like a traveling road show with artists doing readings. I’m going to do my “lazy animation” all along the West Coast. There will be poets and artists on a two-week tour. That’s exciting. I want to get in The New Yorker again. I think my library comics are book-worthy stuff, so I’ll push those. Maybe a monster truck rally.

A monster truck rally? Do you go to those?

No. But I want to!


One Response to “I’m Still in Art-Monster Mode”: A Conversation with Katie Fricas

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